The Ladies of Grace Adieu

Sunday November 5, 2006 in books read 2006 | ghost stories

I’ve just finished reading The Ladies of Grace Adieu, a collection of short stories by Susanna Clarke. I’ve enjoyed it so much that I’ve dedicated a whole post to it.

If you’re familiar with her last novel Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, you’re in for no surprises here. If you’re not familiar with her work, I’ll try to describe the world she’s created as best I can. Clarke’s stories are mostly set in the early 19th Century and written from that perspective, and it’s a recognisable 19th Century world up until a point. In The Ladies of Grace Adieu, there is a barrier or, as one story describes a ‘wall’, between the real world and the supernatural – a wall that is often, and sometimes unwisely, passed through.

The supernatural world is known as the Fairy world, but don’t let this put you off, and don’t be put off either by the fact that Clarke does visit some familiar fairy stories in her subject matter. What’s good about this book is it’s ability to tell well worn tales in a well written and original way.

One example is how On Lickrish Hill revisits Rumplestiltskin. The story is wonderfully fleshed out by its narrator, who manages to add a creepy element, although I couldn’t help wondering that Clarke is merely drawing our attention to the fact that fairy stories are often very macabre anyway. Mrs Mabb is another good example of this, where a girl defeats the wicked fairy who takes the story’s title and all is resolved after just a little death and bloodshed. Not really that unusual; have you ever read a fairy tale without somebody dying in it?

My only criticism is that some of the stories are too brief, and it’s the most substantial stories in the collection that are by far the best. Mr Simonelli is a wonderfully told tale of a man tricked into a dead-end role as a country rector who makes some very strange discoveries before trying out some magic of his own. Tom Brightwind also adds a lot of humour to the strange and unsettling.

Despite the subject material, The Ladies of Grace Adieu is definitely not for young children. There is a dark element to these stories and, as with Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, it’s a darkness that creeps up on the reader slowly. Fairy land isn’t a place where I would want to go.

I rarely buy in hardback but I’m glad I bought this. The design and presentation of the book is perfect for the material, as are the illustrations by Charles Vess. But, apart from a new and slightly disappointing addition called John Uskglass, all of these stories predate Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell and have been published previously, so I’m waiting patiently for something new from Susanna Clarke that I can really get my teeth into.

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